With anxiety levels rising, it’s time to look into the cause
Last week, the US Task Force on Preventive Services, an advisory group that provides health care screening guidelines, recommended that all adults under age 65 be screened for anxiety. Earlier this year, they recommended screening young people for anxiety.
The historic rise in anxiety levels is particularly acute among young adults. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, anxiety rose from 8% in 2008 to nearly 15% in 2018 among 18-25 year olds.
Anxiety is an important and urgent health problem. Getting it under control requires diagnosing cases earlier so they can be treated. The catch is that behavioral health is woefully underfunded and providers are overstretched. Counseling services in most schools and universities have reached their limit. When students are referred to external services, they often find themselves on a waiting list of several months for a first visit.
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The more we study the situation, the more it seems that increasing screening and hiring more therapists is a lost game. It’s like scooping water from a sinking boat. At some point, the leak has to be repaired. The big question is, what is causing anxiety levels to rise?
Those who suffer from anxiety bring up things that are happening in their lives or in the world, such as discrimination, harassment, trauma, health, safety, finances, and politics. But people have always faced serious difficulties, and it is simply not true that things are objectively worse today than they were for previous generations.
Maybe we should look at the ways we think about things rather than the things themselves. What if the reason for rising levels of anxiety isn’t that things are getting worse, but that we’re becoming less and less able to think about things constructively?
A study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports that cognitive distortions — thought patterns associated with anxiety and depression — have increased over the past few decades. The authors speculate that our society could be suffering from a collective depression.
Anxiety doesn’t just happen because there are stressors in a person’s life. Anxiety is what in psychology is called an internalizing disorder. There is a flaw in the way incidents are handled, and this results in various forms of distress, ranging from worry and fear to bouts of insomnia and panic attacks.
The best way to deal with an internalizing disorder is to cultivate mental discipline. But it takes time and practice. A person who spends years cultivating a self-image that depends on things going well and people seeing them the way they want shouldn’t be surprised when their life falls apart. Not all the king’s therapists and all the king’s advisers will put them back together.
At one time it was assumed that the development of mental discipline was an essential part of education. This, after all, is why the different branches of university study are called “disciplines”.
But over the past few decades, two things have happened. First, our education system has elevated STEM fields and professional studies such as healthcare, business, law, and education. Their common point is to learn to manipulate and transform the outside world. At the same time, the fields of study that traditionally taught young people how to develop internal discipline – philosophy, religion, literature and the arts – declined and changed focus. Increasingly, the humanities seek to maintain their relevance by focusing on topics such as “applied ethics”, “cultural studies”, “feminist studies” and “professional writing”, most of which have an external orientation.
The result is that we gradually become better and better able to transform the world outside our heads at the same time that we become worse and worse at controlling the thoughts that go on inside them.
A sign that we are losing our minds is the fact that wellness is now a 4 trillion dollar industry. People know something is wrong and are looking for solutions. The market is happy to provide these solutions in the form of essential oils, biohacking, facial exercises, fitness apps, yoga classes, and detox diets. It’s not that any of these things are bad, they just don’t get to the root of the problem. Exercising, for example, will definitely help a person feel better, but it won’t fundamentally change the way they think about things.
The problem, as the Stoic philosopher Epictetus pointed out nearly 2,000 years ago, is that the more we focus on changing the world around us to feel better, the more emotionally attached we feel to it. . If our emotional life is too closely tied to circumstances beyond our control, then no matter how much we improve things, we will always feel like we have no control over our lives.
There will always be those who experience severe forms of anxiety and need therapy to help them cope with their affliction. But when we see a huge increase in anxiety levels in the population over a relatively short period of time, it’s a sign that something is seriously wrong.
The main cause of anxiety is not what is happening in the world, but how we think about what is happening. Fortunately, it’s something we can control, and we have centuries of wisdom to help us do it better. We just have to turn to it one more time.